Struggling with aftermath of Buttonwood Hospital sale

Joan Brochu, an eight-year resident of Buttonwood, laments the loss of familiar faces.
Joan Brochu, an eight-year resident of Buttonwood, laments the loss of familiar faces. (DAVID M WARREN / Staff)
Posted: September 30, 2012

Over the last two years, Connie Wright scrubbed bathrooms, made beds, and mopped up at Burlington County's century-old nursing home for the indigent.

The job at the former almshouse known as Buttonwood Hospital helped support her three children and three grandchildren - until the county freeholders decided to sell the Pemberton facility.

That left Wright with a painful decision of her own: Should she accept a nearly 40 percent pay cut proposed by the subcontractor of the new owners, putting her family below the poverty level? Or should she collect unemployment, take classes, and look for a better job?

Wright was among 319 full- and part-time employees on the payroll when the rural complex was acquired by a New Jersey chain of nursing homes and rehabilitation centers.

Nearly two-thirds of the staff - mostly certified nursing assistants - decided to leave, putting Buttonwood in turmoil for weeks after the sale was finalized in August.

The facility was sold to Ocean Healthcare of Lakewood for $15 million. The sale was unanimously approved in March by the five-member, all-Republican Board of Freeholders, which took the action because of Buttonwood's $4 million deficit. Freeholders said they had to save taxpayers money.

Besides, little would change for the workers, they said.

"The best part of Buttonwood is you folks," Freeholder Bruce Garganio told employees, referring to the hospital's reputation and five-star rating from Medicare. He told them he was "hoping that every one of you stays there."

In the end, the employees were essentially laid off. The 272 full-time workers were then offered interviews to reapply for their jobs, said Joe Kiernan, a vice president at Ocean Healthcare. Only seven were not approved for hiring.

Nurses' salaries were increased, but other staffers, including nurses' assistants, faced wage cuts of 20 to 50 percent.

By mid-August, 93 workers chose unemployment and 42 retired early, county spokesman Ralph Shrom said.

Wright, 54, a single mother from Browns Mills who scrapes by doing whatever she can to support her family, filed for unemployment. "I'm optimistic I'll find something else," she said.

Many employees face a similar dilemma when privatization or new business owners radically change their working conditions and upend their lives.

If wages are reduced 20 or more percent, employees have reasonable grounds to file a claim for unemployment, the New Jersey Department of Labor said. But once a new offer is accepted, the employee cannot quit and file a claim.

Ocean Healthcare outsources housekeeping operations, and Wright would have been paid $8 an hour had she stayed. She was earning $13 an hour.

"How can I make a living, pay my bills, and be expected to give quality work?" she asked.

Among others making tough choices was Sandra Lapoint, who was a certified nursing assistant at Buttonwood for eight years. The Southampton Township woman learned Ocean Healthcare would pay her only $12 an hour, down from $18.45.

"Are you kidding me?" Lapoint, 42, asked at a hiring interview. The mother of three said her contribution to her family health-care plan would have jumped from $80 a month to $800 a month. "I did showering. I helped where I was needed. I did toileting, undressing, feeding, and changing.

"And I made sure my ladies had their snacks; they were part of my family," she said. "I felt they [Ocean Healthcare] didn't value what I did."

Health-care workers are in demand, and Lapoint got another job that paid more. Her only regret, she said, is that she will miss the residents at Buttonwood, which has 170 beds for nursing care and 30 for psychiatric care.

The company had expected the majority of workers to stay, then scrambled to replace those who left, Kiernan said. The staff has shrunk to 201 employees, including 50 part-time and per-diem workers. That's about 100 fewer staffers.

The company will be satisfied with the staffing levels after hiring 21 more employees, Kiernan said. He said government-run facilities were often unnecessarily over-staffed. Currently, he said, the facility complies with state staffing requirements.

As for the wages, many of the county employees were overpaid, based on the market, Kiernan said. He said the company planned a $3 million to $4 million expansion at the facility and an increase of 30 beds, which he said would create more jobs.

The sale, however, has "created a lot of unemployment," said Adam Liebtag, president of CWA Local 1036, which represents county workers. "People were forced into retiring early or were forced to take unemployment."

Before the sale, hundreds of workers and patient advocates had protested at meetings and picketed the county offices in Mount Holly.

Freeholder Joe Donnelly said that he had hoped the employees would keep their jobs and that he did not "necessarily anticipate" the turnover.

"But, quite frankly, the actions the board took saved Buttonwood. . . . We would have had to reduce programs, and wings of the hospital, and bed count, and within five years, there would be no facility there," he said.

Donnelly said the board has to represent all 450,000 people who live in the county, not just Buttonwood workers and residents.

Before the vote was taken, Freeholder Maryann O'Brien said she expected the new owners to continue Buttonwood's tradition of service, based on their track record elsewhere.

She also said the company had agreed not to displace any residents, to "retain the name of Buttonwood for five years at least," and to keep as many employees as possible.

But when the workers began saying their goodbyes, Joan Brochu, who has lived there for eight years, was moved to tears. "I miss them. They cared about us," said the former resident representative.

Brochu showed off a red "Save Buttonwood Hospital" T-shirt that she had worn to one of the protests. She now treasures it because she collected the signatures of more than 70 workers who she said were like family.

"Now it's all new faces in here," she said.

Because of the diminished staff, Brochu said, residents must wait longer to get a response when they ring their bells for help, such as needing an extra blanket or help getting to the bathroom.

Brochu also said the change in owners meant she had to give up a private room where she had lived for two years. She said she was given one day's notice to move into a semiprivate room and now had less access to the courtyard where she must go to smoke.

Kiernan said Brochu and four other residents had agreed to the move when the company began converting some of the private long-term-care rooms into rooms for rehabilitation.

A more visible indication of the ownership change is the sign out front. It says: "Aspen Hills."

Ocean Healthcare is using the Buttonwood name for only the psychiatric wing. Kiernan said the company wanted a separate identity for the nursing facility and asked the freeholders to allow the break with the past.

"It's not that we didn't want to keep the name," he said.


Contact Jan Hefler at 856-779-3224, jhefler@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @JanHefler. Read her blog, "Burlco Buzz," at www.philly.com/BurlcoBuzz.

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